Health Secondary Story

Sue Ann Says: Take a Healthy Breath! The Smoking and Mental Health Connection

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) stresses that every year smoking kills about 200,000 people who live with a mental illness. As you know, smoking is the primary cause of cancer and cancer related deaths. Additionally, smoking increases your risk of lung disease, heart disease, stroke and is linked to myriad of other life threatening diseases. Women with a mental health illness can stop smoking with the help of their health providers. I want to provide you with some figures on smoking and mental illness in hopes that if you smoke, you will take the first step and discuss smoking cessation with your health provider.

Facts and Statistics on Smoking and Mental Illness
Approximately 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental illness each year. Adults who have a mental illness are more likely to be smokers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that roughly 36% percent of adults with a mental illness are current smokers, compared to the national average of 21% of adults (71% higher relative rate). Here’s a close up look into smoking and mental illness.

  • Smoking is more prevalent in individuals with almost any mental illness.
  • The highest rate of cigarette smoking is usually found among those with a substance abuse disorder.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the only mental health condition which correlates with a lower rate of tobacco use than the national average.
  • Individuals with a mental illness are more often heavier smokers (smoking on average 331 cigarettes per month vs 310) than those without mental health issues.
  • Individuals with a serious mental illness die younger with an average loss in years between 13 and 32 years.

Which Mental Illnesses Are Associated With Smoking?

Mental illnesses linked to tobacco use are:

  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Alcohol abuse and dependence
  • Drug abuse
  • Bipolar mood disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention deficit
  • Panic disorder
  • Delusional disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Social phobia

Why Do Women With Mental Illness Smoke?

According to NAMI, “There is no one single, certain reason why so many people who live with mental illness smoke. It may be a combination of brain effects, psychological effects and the social world in which we live.”

Women with a mental illness are highly vulnerable to the powerful drug in cigarettes, nicotine, resulting in a co-morbid addiction. Nicotine, along with other toxic chemicals in cigarettes, affects the biochemistry of the body.

Tobacco use might relieve feelings of anxiety or stress for some women. These women go on to form a daily habit of smoking. For example, women with depression tend to light up a cigarette within five minutes of waking up in the morning compared to women without depression. Cigarettes have been a way for some women to help pacify their mental illness symptoms.

Another reason that women with a mental illness may smoke is that smoking may be associated with social activities allowing a woman with a mental illness to feel more “in” with her social group.

There Is Hope!

The good news is that it is possible to quit smoking when you have a mental illness. Your psychiatric provider will address smoking habits or addiction. The apprehension that smoking cessation will aggravate the symptoms of your mental health illness is a myth. In many cases it can actually improve them!

You could have the same treatment options just like women without a mental illness. Your cessation program will be based on your own individual needs. It’s probable that your mental health provider will prescribe a treatment that combines medication and antismoking therapy at the same time to improve your success rate.

Discussions With Your Mental Health Provider Are The Keys To Success!
Making the decision to stop smoking is a wise and healthy choice. Set up an appointment with your doctor to talk about the smoking cessations plans that are available, especially if you are being treated for a mental illness. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant and can change the rate at which many medications are metabolized by your body, therefore it is of utmost importance that you work with your health care provider. The dosage of any medications you take may need to be modified after you quit smoking.

More information on smoking and mental illness can be found at the following websites:




I urge you to be courageous and seek out a smoking cessation program that works for you by contacting your mental health provider today.

Because it all begins with a healthy woman…
Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and heir families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit or call 1-800-448-5148.

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